The author of this book, James Waller, is a professor of holocaust and genocide studies at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Asbury University, his Masters of Science at the University of Colorado, and finally earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Kentucky. He is also the author of several other books entitledDrinkology Beer: A Book About the Brew,The Well-Bred Dog: Lisa Zador’s Cabinet of Curious Canines,andDrinkology: Wine: A Guide to the Grape.The first main point that is made inBecoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and MassKillingby James Walleris where he describes what evil is. The author argues that evil is anything that is detrimental to the well being of living things. He then distinguishes between two different kinds of evil, which are natural evil and human evil. He explains that natural evil, which is a function of natural processes of change, includes events like earthquakes, floods, tornados, and droughts. The author used Hurricane Katrina as an example of natural evil, in which at least 1836 people died and much of the Gulf Coast region of the United States was destroyed. Human evil was later described as evil that is done by people and it refers to the destruction people do to others, as well as themselves (pgs. 11-12).
There are many examples of human evil, but one of the most well known examples of the last twenty-five years is the Rwandan genocide, where up to 210,000 Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis in only a hundred days. In looking at the primary and secondary sources James Waller used to write this book, I like how he listed the sources he used by the chapter in which he used to write this book. He uses things like journal articles, books, and websites for both primary and secondary sources. Even though the author uses secondary sources throughout the book such asThe Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party,by William Brustein, he also uses a variety of primary sources. One primary source used in this novel isThe Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocideby Gerard Prunier. This primary source, among others used in the book, were written at the exact time of the event or a year after the event that is being written about occurred, which is one of the reasons why these primary sources are reliable. Another reason these sources are reliable is because they offer an insight to what it was like to live through the events of a particular genocide.
These insights include things like accounts from a survivor of a genocide in which they describe what they saw, the fear they experienced, and how they managed to survive.The author of this book explicitly says that a goal of this book is for psychological understanding instead of moral analysis. He says that understanding how ordinary people come to commit genocide shows a discomforting look at the depths to which the human spirit can plunge. In understanding how ordinary people commit genocide, James Waller discusses a fear that is an attempt to explain extraordinary human evil carries an inordinate risk of contamination with it. The main idea of this fear is the belief that extraordinary human evil is unexplainable. The author also makes an interesting point when he says that trying to explain the inexplicable puts you in a position where you will be tainted by the evil (pg. 19). The author also explicitly says the main argument of his book is that it is ordinary people who commit genocide and mass killing.He admits that the argument is difficult to understand and absorb, but a purely evil person is just as much of an artificial construct as a person who is purely good. The people who commit mass killing and genocide are extraordinary only because of what they have done, and not who they are (pg. 20).
Another important point that the author makes in understanding genocide is the idea of social dominance. James Waller begins this part of the book by saying that the desire for social dominance is one of the most powerful and universal motivating forces in animals and humans. The desire to be socially dominant leads to differences in rank and status and it can be defined as the set of sustained aggressive-submissive behaviors among animals and humans. In a social dominance hierarchy,there are some individuals within a group that gain greater access to important resources that contribute to the survival and reproductive success than other members of the group (pg. 183). The idea of social dominance can be used to explain genocide because when one group of people is killing another, they are showing that they are dominant over the group of people they are killing.They are asserting the idea that they are of a higher status than their victims and that they should have greater access to the important resources (pg. 185).One connection I made to what I was reading was early in the book when the author mentioned the Taino people. The Taino people were an indigenous group that lived all throughout the Caribbean, including in Puerto Rico (pg. 25). I made this connection to this part of the reading because I am half Puerto Rican, and I still learned what the Tainos went through when Columbus came to the Americas. I knew for a long time that some of the Tainos were captured and made into slaves, but what I didn’t know was how the European settlers killed off the Tainos that were not made into slaves. Later in the book, the author makes an argument that I strongly agree with where he says that understanding the universal evolution of human nature only tells us that all of us are capable of committing evil. The idea that all of us are capable of committing evil goes back to the idea of social dominance. Social dominance, which I believe is inherent in all of us, plays an important role in committing evil because if some group of people has a hatred of another group of people, that might motivate them to think that they are better than the group of people they claim to hate. When one group of people feels like they are better than another group of people, they would be more likely to commit acts of evil like persecution and even death to assert their dominance over the lesser group of people. Whether it’s the Hutus asserting social dominance over the Tutsis, or Nazis asserting their social dominance over the Jews, the perpetrators of both genocides believed their victims were inferior to them, which motivated them to commit the horrible acts of evil and violence as a way of showing that the perpetrators believed that they were socially dominant over their victims.
Despite the fact that all of us are capable of committing evil, the author says humans have instinctual pushes that are too diffuse to tell us everything we should know about direction, target, and form of our violent behavior. He also suggests an explanation on how some people perpetrate extraordinary evil while most do not by saying it requires closely focusing on the more proximate and immediate psychological, cultural, and social constructions that activate our evolutionary capacities (pg. 171). One passage of the book that I thought was important was when the author talked about applying authoritarian personality to the perpetrators of evil. I thought it was interesting how the author mentioned that after World War II, West Germany went through a few decades of antiauthoritarian reform that was designed to change what the people of Germany understood about the exercise of authority. After the reforms were in place for a few decades, Germany found a decline in authoritarianism among their youth. The declines that occurred in West Germany between 1945 and 1978 were largely due to changes in how the children were brought up by their parents (pg. 85). I thought this part of the book was interesting because it showed how much of a difference the parents were making on their kids at that time.
Many people would think that the main reason so many Germans did not like Jews was because of Hitler, the Nazis, and all the propaganda that Hitler created and spread throughout his country. While it is true that Hitler and the Nazis played a very important role in creating Nazi propaganda and radicalizing the German people, it never occurred to me that the parents of the children who were growing up in that time period had just as big of an effect on the German youth as the propaganda did. I also agreed with the statement that there may be no homogeneous authoritarian personality, but we can at least say that people have different degrees to which they hold beliefs that are authoritarian. The author says it is safe to say that differences in orientation to authority affect the way they relate to ideas as well as people, especially people with different authority or status.This book was very insightful on what genocide really is, how it is carried out, and where genocides have occurred throughout the world.While I was reading this book, one interesting thing that really helped me understand the subject of this book was the excerpts from memoirs and other writings that explain what occurred in a genocide. Some of them were even recollections of experiences that victims of a particular genocide endured. Early in the book, there is an excerpt from a memoir of a person who lived through the Armenian genocide that tells of men being brutally murdered and being left out on the streets to die (pg. 56).
Another way this book helped me have a better understanding of the subject was the model it showed for how ordinary people commit mass killing and genocide. The model shows that the ultimate influence is the evolution of human nature and there are three proximate influences which are, cultural construction of worldview, psychological construction of the other, and social construction of cruelty. These are all very distinct influences, in which cultural construction of worldview includes ideas like social dominance and collective values, whereas psychological construction of the other includes ideas such as blaming the victims. Social construction of cruelty is different from the first two influences and it includes group identification and professional socialization (pg. 138). I learned a lot about genocide from reading this book and it gave me a much better understanding of what genocide really is and how it is committed.
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